The quality of Western Australian stone fruit has been of a high standard despite the disruptions and uncertainty of 2020, according to the state's peak industry body.
Value Chain Facilitator for the WA Stone Fruit Industry, Shayanna Crouch says growers in the South West of the state have been "hitting their straps" with plenty of great produce landing on the shelves in recent weeks.
"The local stone fruit season has been rewarding for growers," she said. "We are currently heading towards the tail end of the season and we are seeing a huge range of different plums hitting the shelves now. With some lines being a little shorter, prices have been received well both at the grower and consumer level."
She added that the weather has been varied throughout the season, with rainfall in late spring and then again in late summer, while labour has been a major issue for growers, especially the larger businesses.
"The warmer weather didn’t arrive till Christmas, where normally November and early December sees the heat increase," Ms Crouch said. "These varied temperatures and rain events have affected some of the varieties, though, the benefits seen across others should see this balance out. Also, some growers have had to make choices around where they allocate their (workforce) resources and in doing so, some varieties may have had only one pick or none at all. Despite this, the majority of growers have managed to fill their labour requirements and have even shared their staff around to help out other growers. We are thankful for all the workers that have come on board this season, it has been a season like no other and going forward we hope a lot of these workers stay on and we have more Aussies join us in the seasons to come. Without these workers, we would not have been able to supply great quality stone fruit and get positive customer feedback."
Ms Crouch says there is a lot of yellow nectarines grown in WA, and many of these are newer varieties which growers have trialled on-farm. She explains that with any grower it is about finding a variety which grows well in the orchard, holds itself well along the supply chain and most of all, satisfies the customers' tastes.
"If you are looking for an export variety into South East Asia, you are looking for a sweet to super sweet fruit which will last the longer travel time," Ms Crouch said. "Though we find that our domestic market isn’t looking for the super sweet varieties. We are seeing growers diversify their plum plantings with a range of great eating plums in stores, these include both red and black plums and some which are more of a blend. As buying habits change and develop, we see growers replacing older varieties with newer ones, unless they see the need to expand on some existing varieties. The range of WA stone fruit on the shelves is quite diverse and presents many options for all customers, no matter their taste preferences."
The industry currently has a 'Consumer Research Survey' open to the public to help us understand the purchasing habits of our West Australian consumers. Ms Crouch says this will allow stakeholders to gain a greater understanding of how diverse the local WA customer base is and how it can look to satisfy them when it comes to selecting preferred varieties of stone fruit.
"We are aware that the category of stone fruit has a huge range of varieties, flavours and assessing buying habits will help draw more clarity on how people buy our WA produce,” Ms Crouch said. “We ask people of their buying habits, their considerations when purchasing and how they buy stone fruit, location and packaging. The survey will close in April at the end of the season, allowing us to analyse and assess and give feedback to our growers.”
Ms Crouch said the recent Perth lockdown saw shoppers stock up on fresh local produce, and stone fruit was no exception to this.
"West Australian’s are renowned for being quite parochial and that is still the case in the world of COVID as they are very cognisant of buying locally produced stone fruit," she said. "Currently we are seeing people pay more attention to where their food is coming from. With the uncertainty which we are seeing around the world, customers are looking for products which are produced locally, they are all for supporting local and we are definitely seeing that in the buying habits of consumers. The eating experience will still remain as the main consideration when purchasing stone fruit and growers continue to make sure that these eating experiences are reliably good, to encourage returning buyers time and time again."
Western Australia predominately supplies the local market, with a smaller portion of plums going overseas particularly Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. But the COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions to freight across Australia, and Ms Crouch admits that these effects do flow through to WA.
"With many ports backed up with liners and air freight at a premium, planning of logistics around export must be agile and fluid," she said. "With perishable produce, such as stone fruit, these issues are further highlighted. Otherwise, on the local market, COVID has been a major disruption to labour and we can see other issues arising next season if appropriate planning and mitigation of these issues are not tackled over this growing season."